The Magic Moment in Italian Craft Brewing
Beer faces an uphill battle in Italy, where it has always been considered inferior to wine. The climate, culture and religious beliefs are all friendlier to grapes than to barley. As Catholics, we Italians believe wine to be the sacred beverage, blessed at the Last Supper, whereas beer is the symbol of the paganism of Northern peoples.
The Etruscans are credited with having introduced barley, the basic ingredient for the preparation of beer, into Italy between the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. By the first century A.D., the whole Roman Empire had picked up the habit of consuming beer. But beer was considered a “pagan and plebeian” beverage in comparison to the “divine and noble” wine. In 87 A.D., the historian Tacitus compared the beer of the Germans to vinus corruptus–wine gone bad!
His father-in-law, Agricola, was not of the same opinion. He brought three master brewers from Glevum, nowadays known as Gloucester, to Rome, where he turned his villa into a private brewery.
Beer had other powerful supporters. The Emperor Augustus exempted the medical profession from paying taxes, because Musa, his doctor, cured him of liver ache with cervisia.
But royal endorsement could not save Roman beer from the barbarians. Beer fell victim to the barbaric invasions that destroyed Rome’s agricultural base, as well as its breweries. From the medieval period, there are only isolated historic references to beer, all related to monastic life. Manuscripts dated between 529 and 543 say that beer was served during the stay of Saint Benedict of Norcia at the Abbey of Montecassino in Latium. This was the first Italian abbey beer, and perhaps the first abbey beer in the world. And, in 600 A.D, a monk from Ireland founded the Abbey of Bobbio in the vicinity of Piacenza. There, he performed miracles with beer in 612 and 613, which may have led to his later canonization as St. Killian.
For nearly 10 centuries, there was no real expansion of brewing in Italy and the return of beer to our country was not auspicious. It was reintroduced by the notorious Lansquenets who sacked Rome in 1527. Named for the German Land-Knecht, or “servant of the country,” these mercenaries, commanded by officers from noble families, reportedly loved beer so much that they carried it even into battle. During the period of insurrections leading to the Unity of Italy, called the “Italian Risorgimento” (1815-1870), the divide between the oppressed wine drinkers and the oppressing Austrian beer drinkers sharply paralleled the political differences.
But, in time, nothing could stop the popularity of this fresh, thirst-quenching and socializing beverage. Beer conquered the whole world, and it won Italy over, too.
The first proper modern breweries in Italy, all of them with craft features, were founded in the second half of the 19th century. The first was probably Spluga, located in Chiavenna, in 1840. It was followed immediately by breweries founded by far-sighted Austrians such as Wührer, Dreher, Paskowski, Metzger, Caratch, and Von Wünster, who were searching for a brand new market. These Austrian entrepreneurs were soon imitated by many Italian family brewers, some of whom, like Peroni and Menabrea, are still operating. All these early products were lagers in the Austrian style.
Then came the vicissitudes of two world wars and rising taxes. Small breweries were easy prey and fell victim to big and powerful international groups. Brewing concentrated in a few hands, with an inevitable loss of character that further eroded the reputation of beer.
Despite the higher status still accorded to wine, the Italian beer market was–and is–a prize worth fighting for. Last year, the consumption of beer in Italy reached a record high of approximately 15.5 million hectoliters (approximately 13 million barrels US), and domestic production stood at approximately 12.1 million hl.
In the last 25 years, per capita consumption of beer has more than doubled, to around 27 liters per year (compared to about 160 liters per year in the beer-devoted Czech Republic, and about 77 in the United States). In the same period, wine consumption has been cut in half, from 104 to 51.5 liters.
These figures are encouraging for the beer industry if we consider only quantity. When we consider quality, it’s a quite different story. More than 90 percent of all the beer consumed is still in the “international lager” style. In many ways, it resembles the situation of the United States at the end of 1960s. The dream of all lovers of craft beer in Italy is to reproduce the fantastic adventure of the Americans, great protagonists of an extraordinary beer “renaissance.”
Small Is Beautiful
Beer’s reputation is not helped by the powerful multinational companies that play to the old “pagan and plebian” image. Some of these companies claim to promote beer education, organizing courses for their publicans on such subjects as the correct way to pour beer on tap or from the bottle. These trained publicans are then meant to help educate their customers. The same companies then paradoxically present advertising spots on Italian television, where trendy boys take frozen bottles from the fridge and gulp directly from the bottle.
No comment. That is the popular image of beer in Italy. We are not surprised when foreigners have heard only of Peroni Nastro Azzurro or Moretti, or perhaps Menabrea.
Behind the scenes, things are changing.
Thanks to a small group of beer lovers, you can now find many pubs with a large range of beers from small independent breweries from all over the world. There are beer shops with well-informed staff, where you can buy bottles to take away and taste quietly at home, at the right temperature in the right glass. For the curious, there are tasting courses for the experienced beer lover and the novice alike. There are presentations on beer styles, on famous brewing centers, and on brewers’ philosophies, followed by tutored tastings that pair beers with the right foods.
This development of a real beer culture is very important because it can be the foundation for a radical change of consumers’ habits. The consumer begins to become more discriminating. In this promising new atmosphere, the opening of the first small independent breweries in 1996 came at just the right time.
Who started this movement in the 1990s? Many people can claim credit. Thanks to international travel, beer lovers discovered the different and wonderful products of nations with traditional beer cultures. Back in Italy, they sought out those beers. In response, some distributors began to import craft beers and supplied pubs, often run by publicans who had themselves tasted these beers during trips abroad.
Other people were not satisfied with drinking imported craft beer, so began to brew it themselves. “After visiting and falling in love with Granville Island microbrewery in Vancouver, I was tempted to abandon college to open my own brewpub,” said Agostino Arioli, brewer at Birrificio Italiano. “Thank heavens,” he added, “I decided to conclude my studies and improve my brewing technologies.”
For Teo Musso, brewer at Le Baladin, things went in a different way.
“I went to Belgium to learn everything about brewing,” he said. Back in Italy, he opened his own pub in 1986 to introduce great classic Belgian beers to customers who had previously drunk only wine or tasteless industrial beers. “But I was not completely gratified. My real mission was to become a brewer myself. I absolutely had to turn my pub in a brewpub,” he concluded.
The first “new” brewers had to face a lot of hard challenges, including bureaucratic and legal problems. The need for capital and unjustly high taxation made their nights sleepless. They needed also more education, both of brewers and of consumers, and improvement in the quality of beer.
For these and other reasons, a small but experienced group of brewers in 1998 founded an association called Unionbirrai (Union of Brewers), which in its short life has become a presence at important exhibitions in Italy and abroad.
Other small breweries have joined the founders and more will follow them. Already, members represent the whole Italian territory, from Friuli region in the far north, to Sicily in the far south.
“The union upholds standards of quality and supports both consumer and brewer education as well. For this purpose, we organize congresses, monographic courses, seminars, publish a newspaper and distribute Italian and foreign scientific works,” explained union president Guido Taraschi.
“The union has intrigued the Italian and foreign media, as well as famous beer writers such as Michael Jackson and Charlie Papazian,” said Davide Sangiorgi, the nice, shockingly tattooed and skillful brewer of Birrificio Lambrate.
These craft brewers are the real protagonists of this lively and exciting new reality. As true pioneers, they are challenging the lack of beer culture and information in Italy with great passion, courage and boldness. They are spurred on by their main goals: the quality of their products, the development of a real Italian beer culture, the professionalism of craft brewers and the satisfaction of the consumer.
Young, Demanding and Eager for Knowledge
As the skills of the new brewers grow, so do the expectations of Italian drinkers. Nowadays, Italians have more opportunities to discover a new taste, the taste of craft beers, unfiltered and unpasteurized, and to appreciate more authenticity and variety of flavors.
A recent survey conducted by Assobirra (the Association of the Industrialists of Beer and Malt), revealed that the typical Italian consumer of commercial beer is male, aged between 25 and 35 years, a college graduate, a professional man or manager, mainly single, living in a big city of northwestern Italy like Milan, Turin or Genoa or in the sunny regions of the South. He sees beer as a great ice breaker, he loves social life and participates in sports. This stereotype of the beer consumer enjoys drinking beer while reading a book, surfing the Internet or watching TV.
In contrast, the typical Italian consumer of craft beer is a phenomenon so new that there are no market analyses available. Personal observation would say that this “new” beer consumer is younger, with a special interest in all that is natural and healthy. He, too, is cultured and mainly single (it is well known that an Italian family with children does not often go out at night). He lives in a big city and loves social life. But when he decides to drink beer, he does so for pleasure. He does not mix beer drinking with other activities, but likes to concentrate on the taste and the flavor of the beer itself. He feels the need to learn more about what he is drinking. In the end, the main difference lies in the fact that the craft beer consumer is not only eager to drink, but even more eager to know about the real culture of beer.
This new beer lover represents a favorable opportunity for many types of small businesses. For example, in the market of books about beer, some world best sellers are now available in Italian translation. The newborn Unionbirrai News, published by the beer union, is so far the only Italian magazine devoted to the consumer of craft beer. Ask for a free copy from [email protected].
The world of Italian craft beer is increasingly attracting the interest of the media, which dedicates more space and attention to small craft breweries. The attitude of the press has changed radically.
At the beginning of the craft brewing movement, the occasional article dedicated to the small breweries focused mainly on folkloristic aspects, or on craft brewing as a curiosity. Coverage was therefore superficial and without depth. But thanks to an ever-rising level of the quality of the beers, and the attention they have received in pleasant and crowded pubs as well important festivals, the press has started to take craft beer seriously.
The emerging interest in this new phenomenon is rapidly consolidating, not only in Italy, but abroad. It is often possible to find articles in influential European and American magazines full of appreciation for Italian beers and breweries. Witness the 2000 Great British Beer Festival in London in August: For the very first time, Italian products were present at this five-day celebration of craft beer from all over the world. Isaac, a white beer, and Super, an abbey-style beer, both from Le Baladin Brewery, were shipped to England, together with Amber Shock from Birrificio Italiano. The shipments were small, but English and Italian television dedicated special reports to these “new entries.”
But the real triumph was conferred by the customers themselves. “Excellent” was the most common comment after the first taste. The unavoidable result: after only one and a half days of the festival, all the beers were “sold out.” Next year, Italian brewers will present more products, bottled as well as draft.
The Homebrew Connection
The enthusiasm for craft beer in Italy is contagious in the world of homebrewers. The number of amateurs who enjoy making beer is continuously increasing, with sales of equipment and homebrew kits “in a clear ascent,” said Eliano Zanier, who supplies homebrewers with products under the brand name “Mr. Malt.”
Pioneer Massimo Faraggi’s newsgroup named “it.hobby.birra” has proved to be a winner. “Thanks to the power of the Internet, homebrewers are able to swap opinions, seek advice and improve the quality of their homemade products,” he explained.
“After the first exchanges and comparisons, now we are planning to organize the first homebrew competition, dedicated to winter beers. It will be held before Christmas and it will be similar to the ones taking place periodically in the United States,” said homebrewer Enrico Pastori.
The newsgroup has built up a lively and rich web site at www.hobbybirra.it. The site is continuously updated by the very active Lelio Bottero, who invented a browser with the curious name, “altabirra.” “This site gets about 1,500 hits per week,” he proudly affirms. Thanks to it, everybody can reach information and news related to the craft beer world of Italy and beyond.
Homebrewers are already actively present in Unionbirrai. Given the strength of interest in the virtual brewing community, a local association of Italian homebrewers seems imminent.
An End to Isolation
Not even the most optimistic among the Italian small brewers would have dreamed of becoming a member of the prestigious EBCU (European Beer Consumers Union) after only two years. It has been quite simple, however.
On behalf of Italian craft brewers, I asked the leaders of EBCU during the Great British Beer Festival in August 1999 to consider the request of Unionbirrai to join the prestigious European association. In October, the request was on the agenda of the EBCU Meeting in Antwerp. After hearing about the evolving craft brewing industry in Italy, the delegations voted unanimously for admission. The welcome from the EBCU means that Unionbirrai sits at the same table with Belgium, the United Kingdom, and other nations with the richest beer cultures.
But above all, the membership means the end of the isolation fostered by tradition, geography and a climate that is more suitable for the cultivation of vineyards and the production of wine. The success of craft beer of excellent quality signals an auspicious, though gradual change. Nothing is harder than trying to change mentality. It requires a lot of time, patience, and more than else, tenacity. The young, enthusiastic, small brewers are proving that they possess these gifts.
Lorenzo Dabove is an expert on Belgian beers, specializing in the traditional lambic style. He is a member of CAMRA, a “permanent” member of BSF (Bières sans Frontières) and official taster for Unionbirrai.